Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by HM Government

SUMMARY

  1.  The Government supports many of the conclusions reached by the Social Europe working group. In particular, the Government:

    —  welcomes the recognition by the group that Union initiatives in the social policy field must be flexible and adaptable to national circumstances;

    —  believes that the existing competences of the Union are adequate;

    —  considers that the report's conclusions on the Open Method of Co-ordination are helpful, as they affirm the need for flexible arrangements for its application;

    —  agrees on the importance of streamlining co-ordination between European economic and social policies;

    —  considers that extension of qualified majority voting in the social policy field is not necessary, and notes that no consensus within the group was reached on this point; and

    —  agrees that consultation with the social partners should be recognised in the Constitutional Treaty.

DETAIL

  2.  The Government has actively engaged in the Social Europe working group of the Convention on the Future of Europe. It considers that the final report of the working group reflects UK comments, and can join with the consensus reached in many areas of the report. Inevitably because the report reflects a variety of views there are some areas where the Government disagrees with some of the opinions expressed. However the high degree of consensus in this difficult area underlines the breadth of support for strong social values in the Community.

  3.  The Government has contended that the new Constitutional Treaty must support equality between women and men and the objectives of "more and better jobs" and "social cohesion" agreed at the Lisbon European Council in 2000. Furthermore, there should be a balance in Community actions stemming from the Treaty—rights and standards must be employment-friendly, and should help not hinder, unemployed people in obtaining employment. It has also pressed for the new Treaty to recognise and respect the diversity of social systems and industrial relations in the EU, particularly in the light of enlargement. The UK Government submitted a joint paper with the Spanish, Polish and Estonian Governments to the working group affirming all this.

  4.  In many respects, the working group as a whole took a similar approach. It agreed that before a socially just Europe can be created, a firm base of employability and flexible and adaptable arrangements is needed. There was no desire to promote a neo-liberal European social model, nor was there a wish to promote protectionist measures which only place obstacles in the path of new enterprises or which make employers reluctant to create new jobs or take on untried employees.

  5.  The Government shares the consensus in the working group's final report on the values of the Union: social justice, solidarity and equality, including equality between men and women. It believes that Europe can move forward on the basis of these shared values, to advance social progress both within and beyond its frontiers. The Government also welcomes many of the objectives proposed by the working group, in particular the promotion of full employment, sustainable development, equality between men and women and social inclusion. The Government is particularly pleased that the report of the working group recognises that these objectives can be accomplished using the diverse traditions of Member States.

  6.  The Government agrees with the final report's conclusion that "in general the existing competences of the Union are adequate". Harmonisation (as opposed to co-ordination) is not always appropriate and in some cases could undermine agreed EU objectives. Thus the Government considers that competences in the social policy field should mostly be defined as measures which support national action. These are different from shared competences, where there is the possibility of Member State and Union action.

  7.  The Government judges the conclusions of the working group to mean that shared competences should comprise, as now, Single Market related issues and a core framework of employment standards. The Government considers that the latter should continue to preclude any measure to set common standards for pay. It should also specifically exclude questions of the right of association, the right to strike or the right to impose lock-outs across the EU, which should be determined nationally, in view of the divergence of national laws, traditions and practice. The report affirms the Government's view that EC legislation in the social field must respect the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity.

  8.  The suggestion in the report's conclusions that Article 16 could be redrafted to allow for EC legislation on services of general interest runs contrary to the report's conclusion that the competences of the Union are sufficient. The suggested redraft would entail a substantial extension of Union competence in fields such as social security and education. The Government does not consider that changes are needed to Article 16 since there is already an acceptable Treaty base for Community action on services of general economic interest in Article 86.3.

  9.  The Government agrees with the report's conclusion that there may be a case for enhancing Community action in certain areas of public health protection, such as bioterrorism or communicable disease control. There may also be benefits of rationalising existing Community powers to deliver health objectives more effectively, such as on tobacco control. However the Government believes that a further discussion of specifics is necessary before accepting the case for an extension of Community competence in the health field, and the Government strongly supports the report's view that the exclusive competence for Member States' health systems in Article 152.5 should be retained. The High Level Process of Reflection on Patient Mobility and Healthcare Developments in Europe provides a valuable forum for detailed consideration of these issues.

  10.  The Government considers that the report's conclusions on the Open Method of Co-ordination are helpful. The Open Method is a flexible tool which is used in different ways in different circumstances, depending on what is to be achieved. It is helpful that the report does not recommend areas where the Open Method should be applied, nor does it suggest that the Open Method should be rigidly defined in the Treaty.

  11.  The Government agrees on the importance of streamlining co-ordination between European economic and social policies. It considers that the most appropriate means of achieving this is by ensuring that the Broad Economic Policy Guidelines include social and employment objectives. It is the Government's opinion that Treaty changes are not required to achieve greater consistency between economic and social policies, as this would be too rigid and prescriptive.

  12.  The final report of the working group notes that the group could not agree whether to extend qualified majority voting (QMV) in the social policy field. The Government does not believe that any extension of QMV in this area is necessary. It is not convinced that more QMV will create more and better jobs, or help further alleviate social exclusion. The Government also considers that unanimity has not been a bar to the adoption of necessary legislation in the social field. Unanimity allows proportionate legislation to be adopted which respects the diversity of national traditions in EU Member States.

  13.  New decision-making arrangements in the social field under the Nice Treaty only came into effect on 1 February 2003. The new rules allow the Council to decide unanimously to move to qualified majority voting in some areas of social policy. The Government considers that it would be premature to consider changing these arrangements at this stage. Given that they have not yet been properly tested, the Government believes that the arrangements should be preserved in the new Treaty.

  14.  The final report of the working group states that a "superqualified majority vote" of 75 per cent could be a possible means of extending qualified majority voting in the social policy field. The Government does not believe that this would be a satisfactory compromise, as this would only be an increase of 3.74 per cent on the qualified majority vote threshold of 71.26 per cent in the Nice Treaty.

  15.  The Government welcomes the conclusion in the final report of the working group that consultation with the social partners should be recognised in the Constitutional Treaty, as it is in the present EC Treaty. The social partners play an important role in European policy making and the Government supports the conclusion that the existing procedures in Article 139 should be maintained. Civil society organisations also make valuable contributions to social policy making, and the Government considers that it is important that they are consulted. However the Government does not believe that a prescribed role for these organisations should be set out in the Treaty.

NEXT STEPS

  16.  The final report of the working group will be used to draft Treaty Articles to be discussed by the Convention's Praesidium. The Government will work closely with other Convention members to ensure that the resulting Treaty supports Lisbon objectives.

February 2003


 
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